Green Energy: USA and China

Monday, February 1, 2010 | |

China's 863 Program

In America, things have gone differently. In April of 1977, President Jimmy Carter warned that the hunt for new energy sources, triggered by the second Arab oil embargo, would be the “moral equivalent of war.” He nearly quadrupled public investment in energy research, and by the mid-nineteen-eighties the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in clean technology, manufacturing more than fifty per cent of the world’s solar cells and installing ninety per cent of the wind power.

Ronald Reagan, however, campaigned on a pledge to abolish the Department of Energy, and, once in office, he reduced investment in research, beginning a slide that would continue for a quarter century. “We were working on a whole slate of very innovative and interesting technologies,” Friedmann, of the Lawrence Livermore lab, said. “And, basically, when the price of oil dropped in 1986, we rolled up the carpet and said, ‘This isn’t interesting anymore.’ ” By 2006, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government was investing $1.4 billion a year—less than one-sixth the level at its peak, in 1979, with adjustments for inflation. (Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, nearly quadrupled during that time, to more than twenty-nine billion dollars.)

Scientists were alarmed. The starkest warning came in 2005, from the National Academies, the country’s top science advisory body, which released “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a landmark report on U.S. competitiveness. It urged the government to boost investment in research, especially in energy. The authors—among them Steven Chu, then the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and now the Secretary of Energy, and Robert Gates, the former C.I.A. director and now the Secretary of Defense—wrote, “We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost—and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”

Fantastic article.